Stephen Massimilla is a poet, professor, painter, and author, most recently of the poetry collection Frank Dark (Barrow Street Press, 2022) and the 2022 co-edited social justice poetry anthology, Stronger Than Fear. His multi-genre, co-authored Cooking with the Muse (Tupelo Press, 2016) won the Eric Hoffer Award and many others. Previous books and honors include The Plague Doctor in His Hull-Shaped Hat (SFASU Press Prize); Forty Floors from Yesterday (Bordighera Prize, CUNY); The Grolier Poetry Prize; the Van Rensselaer Prize, selected by Kenneth Koch; a study of myth in poetry; award-winning translations; etc. His work has been featured recently in hundreds of publications ranging from AGNI to Denver Quarterly to Huffpost to Poetry Daily. Massimilla holds an MFA and a PhD from Columbia University and has taught there and at many other schools, currently The New School. He is also a prolific artist. Below are excerpts from his interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.
James Morehead: I’m going to start with the cover of “Frank Dark”, because of the striking and unsettling painting you created for the cover. It set the tone perfectly for the poetry. How did you approach painting the cover art? Did you create this painting specifically for the book or a happy coincidence?
Stephen Massimilla: “The cover is a self-portrait, which may or may not be obvious due to its somewhat expressionistic style, but it’s realistic enough that some might recognize it as such. For those who can’t see it, the portrait features one human eye and a lizard face superimposed over the other half of the face. I had worked on the self-portrait earlier, but the decision to add the lizard and create this updated version was made during the book’s production process. My editor collaborated with me and helped with some of the technical aspects. While some people find the cover grim or chilling, I actually think it’s kind of amusing.”
James: Who are your poetic influences and what poets inspired you to pursue poetry?
Stephen: “My influences are quite vast, which makes it difficult to narrow down. During my pursuit of a doctorate, I focused on high modernist poets such as Yeats, Lawrence, and Eliot, as well as their American counterparts like William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and James Schuyler. However, these American modernists often disagreed with the more erudite high modernists. Additionally, I was influenced by sublime writers like Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane.
“Many of the writers that have influenced me operate outside of the Anglo-American paradigm, such as Nâzım Hikmet, Czesław Miłosz, Derek Walcott, and others. For the book “Frank Dark,” I was particularly influenced by a group of poets called the Hermetic poets, including Montale, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti. They are often compared to the French Symbolists but are more introspective and pared down. They mostly wrote between the two World Wars when history seemed to be going backward.
“In their work, the sounds and symbolic meanings of words are often as significant as their literal semantic meanings. This aspect of Hermetic poetry was important to me when I was writing the poems for ‘Frank Dark.’”
James: For students of poetry, that’s a wonderful collection of poets to explore. Your book opens with the poem “Aurora” and the lines:
"When the brain is quiet and the night too long with no love, to squint is to wake up images and call them fish hawks stealing under eyelids in sparse light, long skimming hooks over lines that might mirror their wings."
You immediately set a macabre, surreal tone, infused with the natural world. How did you approach deciding which poem should open “Frank Dark”?
Stephen: “Choosing the opening poem is always a challenge. I advise anyone putting a book together not to spend too much time on it, as the poem might wither under the pressure. I went through various options and eventually settled on ‘Aurora,’ but not right away. I had most of the book in place and thought this poem made sense in the context of the work, considering the recurring themes of blindness, darkness, and illness.
“I chose ‘Aurora’ as it inverts the poetry form called ‘aubade,’ where the poet wakes up in the morning with a loved one. Although light is coming up, one has to squint to wake up images, a metaphor for the poet thinking about writing and also literally about fish hawks skimming over water. Squinting narrows our field of vision but helps us see better, which is relevant to the collection.
“As the book progresses, the field of vision widens, but we also have to take in more darkness as well as more light. The poem ends referencing darkness, which is related to the title ‘Frank Dark.’ The order of the poems, the first poem, and the cover are all carefully orchestrated to work together.”
James: The first poem is important, but overthinking it could lead to “overworking the dough,” and the poem may not serve as the best introduction if you dwell on it too much.
Stephen: “When the book was accepted by Barrow Street, another poem was initially placed first, so the decision to use ‘Aurora’ came later. My advice for anyone putting a book together is not to arrange all the poems by yourself. Instead, sort the poems and get someone else to help, as you may be too close to the work to rely solely on your subjective judgment. Be careful with the first poem – it’s important, but that’s also the problem. I would save choosing that poem for last, but that’s just my perspective.”
James: Your diction is so richly strange, challenging in a good way. In “What You Don’t Want to See” you write:
"My instinct was to try to push my eye up, back into the skull, remove the worm, leaving just the hook of hurt in the iris: flushed"
How do you think about finding balance between the surreal and the concrete?
Stephen: “Thank you. I want my poetry to be clear enough for any reader to understand the subject, while also recognizing that poetry is a multifaceted art intersecting with philosophy, visual art, and music. It is indeed a challenge to integrate all these aspects.
“In this poem, with the narrowed field of vision I mentioned earlier, the physicality is more prominent, as it addresses the touched retina by fiddling with the physical eye. The poem is also about seeing, making observations, and the anxiety that arises when our vision fails. It even becomes meta-poetic when the speaker reads a poem about suicide, which adds a layer of dark humor.
“To integrate all these elements, I found it helpful to use short line breaks, allowing me to parse the different pieces of the poem. The structure provided by tercets also helps manage the many themes and ideas present in the work.”
James: The surreal nature of many of the poems in this collection leave the interpretation wide open for the reader. What are some of the surprising interpretations you’ve heard from your readers?
Stephen: “It’s fascinating to hear people’s interpretations. One critic responded to the title, suggesting ‘Frank Dark’ sounded like the name of a mysterious gunslinger coming to the American wasteland to administer grim justice. Although not my intention, I appreciate such creative takes and would have even considered incorporating them into the book if I’d heard them earlier.
“The openness of interpretation relates to the dark intent and the tension between the terms ‘Frank’ and ‘Dark.’ The words can be read as nouns, proper nouns, or adjectives, creating ambiguity. This openness was influenced by symbolism, particularly the hermetic poets. The title could suggest bringing darkness into the light, making it ‘Frank,’ which is a contradictory notion, as darkness cannot be seen if turned into light. Alternatively, you may need a dark vision to throw light into relief.
“There are also personal meanings in the title. For example, ‘Frank’ is the name of someone who got me interested in poetry as a teenager. The goal is to steer into the darkness to see better, celebrating life’s essences and seductions. I wanted the collection to be exciting, filled with imagery influenced by poets like Lorca, Sylvia Plath, and Ellen Bass, who are very visual.
“Ultimately, the aim is to see possibility in the darkness and try to see better, approaching reality with more humility in order to achieve a more precise and hopeful view of our damaged humanity. By giving multiple interpretations, I show that I wanted the collection to be intense and thought-provoking.”
James: “The Hitlerian Spring” and the accompanying notes made me curious to look up Montale’s poem that, in part, inspired your poem. What role does research play in your poetry, and what research strategies do you share with your students?
Stephen: “Research is important, but it shouldn’t detract from the cadence and evocativeness of the poetry. Regarding ‘The Hitlerian Spring,’ it’s an adaptation, or what Robert Lowell called an imitation, of an earlier poem. It recalls European fascism as a reference point for the nativist wave we’re witnessing today. The poem’s speaker protests and evokes the struggle of radiance against bleakness, discussing the dark-light struggle.
“To address these themes, one must know the history and understand the various references in the poem, such as the Biblical reference to recovery from blindness and Montale’s ‘Beatrice.’ This knowledge ties into my background and the poem’s creation during the height of the Trump administration.
“In my writing process, I usually rely on my prior knowledge and fascination with various subjects. I am a voracious reader and have degrees in some of the subjects that come up in my poems, such as art history and war history. Many poets have extensive knowledge of flora and fauna, and I incorporate this knowledge in my poems when it suits the mood and theme.
“As for research strategies, much of my knowledge is already present before writing a poem. When writing, I tap into what I know and then check the facts and ensure the terminology is accurate. In essence, my research is more about utilizing my existing knowledge and making sure it is precise and relevant to the poem.”
James: I’m going to switch to a very short poem. “Attempt at Bare Geography” is only five lines, and effective. It’s so short I’ll read the entire poem:
"Our first sound is a cry. Then it takes too long to realize we must be quiet to begin to hear the quiet in our lives before the quiet beyond our lives begins."
I struggle writing short poems, it’s something I’m working on; how did you approach revising and editing this poem? What advice do you have for your students when writing short poems?
Stephen: “That poem comes right after a long, complicated landscape poem, and it felt important to follow the longer poem with something that would give the reader breathing space. The book is informed by Eastern spiritual philosophy, so I felt that it would be inappropriate to get too wordy in a spiritual poem about how to be quiet and ensure that space within and beyond the limited confines of the self, getting beyond the ego.
“It’s an effort at humility and simplicity. The poem started a bit longer and was gradually pared down. Even one of the editors who helped me with the book pared it down a little more. I wanted to get it down to its absolute bare minimum of essentials.
“I think anyone writing a poetry book should consider the counterpoint between long poems and shorter poems because readers need that space to breathe. This poem is about finding that quiet space in our lives. As Olson and Creeley said, the form of the poem should be an x-ray of its content, and that’s also what I was trying to achieve here.”
James: Deliciously morbid and macabre images are sprinkled into your poetry, one example from “Proto-Post-Memento Mori” where you write:
“Sparrows brawling in the eaves... As active as those of dreaming poets, the filmy membranes of eyes and bellies (two fetal carcasses the parents in their spat must have kicked down to my doorstep) were rolling, Rapid eye— and bowel—movements: fatty blue and bubblegum stomachs already pregnant with maggots buzzed electric in the mid-spring sun."
What attracts you to such richly striking and unsettling images?
Stephen: “I guess that’s my sensibility. I love that this is an objective description of a real event: two fetal carcasses of baby sparrows on my doorstep. The poem doesn’t romanticize the natural world. It’s a reflection on the natural world, illness, darkness, and passage through that darkness and death toward compassion and love. The poems are also about the writing of poetry and so much more. I try to make even small visual observations reflect an entire world and the personal.”
“The point is just to take it in as an image. If you can visualize it and experience it, you don’t have to overanalyze it. I like to pack a lot into a tight space, but I want it to be something you can picture. As an artist, the visual element is important.”
James: That passage tapped into the artistic side, the painter side of you, which is a skill that has to infuse your poetry. You see things differently because you can create them with a paintbrush.
Stephen: “Absolutely. A lot of the weirdness you’re observing comes from my multimedia approach. This is not unusual among artists. For example, Michelangelo was a poet, sculptor, and painter. Rossetti, Blake, and e.e. cummings were also visual artists. I bet many people on your podcast mention they’re artists or musicians. That’s what I love about poetry.”
James: I’d like you to share some advice for students considering pursuing an MFA in college. What do you recommend to help them get the most out of the experience?
Stephen: “Before starting an MFA, have some poems that you’re relatively happy with. If you’re not used to the workshop format, consider studying poetry in some form or context beforehand. Familiarize yourself with the workshop format or consider a low-residency MFA program if you prefer one-on-one exchanges with a teacher.
“In a group situation, having prior experience can help because it’s not just about writing poetry but also learning to turn it into a more social occasion, accepting criticism, and offering productive criticism. Prepare for the mechanics of the process and try not to be too sensitive or ego-driven. You’ll learn more if you’re open to criticism and trying new things.
“Poets tend to be sensitive, and pursuing an MFA when you’re young might be challenging. Another option is to do it when you’re a little older and more mature. Focus on the process as much as the product. Learn to both give and receive gracious criticism, and you’ll enjoy the experience more.”